By: Spencer Allen,
What makes a piece of clothing proper? As a historian, tailor, and now a law student, this is a question I’ve spent some time considering. In its most pure, clothing is technology. Though simpler than a computer or artificial intelligence, clothing is perhaps the most fundamental way human societies use tools to manipulate the natural environment and change the way we live. As the human species developed society and civilization the things we wore shifted from a matter of pure survival to a matter of technological communication. The things we wear, like the way we speak or the way we walk, is a rough compromise between the individual and society. More than pure individual expression, clothing is communication, and communication needs an interpretive audience. Just like the artist, the wearer of clothes is not fully in charge of what his clothes mean—and any choice of clothing will be given meaning through the analysis of the society. Simply put, clothing is not just a matter of individual preference. All clothing is on some level technological communication—using tools and materials to interact with the world and to shape day to day life. Just as a speaker must rely on society to interpret language, the wearer must rely on society to interpret communication via clothing.
When a person enters the public space, their clothing becomes a uniform—a symbol of who they are and what they are about. My father’s uniform is a heavy blue cotton long sleeve shirt. He has worn it for thirty years at the Toyota factory in Georgetown, Kentucky. For a time, my uniform was the woolen coatee with 3 rows of custom cast buttons, tails, and black and gold piping that I wore as a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute when I marched in the inauguration of the President. As a law student, my new uniform is the business suit. Though the general popularity of suits has declined in recent years, the garment remains the basic uniform of the legal profession—and a symbol to society of the legal profession. That uniform is a powerful symbol. So much so that the word “suit” itself is now strongly enough identified with lawyers to be the title of a television show about lawyers.
The suit’s connection to law is not one forged by personal expression. Instead, the suit has been, for many hundreds of years (at least in the west), intimately connected to those whose work, like lawyers, is building, leading, and maintaining the mechanisms of society.
It is truly astounding in this age of un-hemmed pants, ballooning shirts, and wrinkled jackets with glued interfacing, that women wearing pantsuits is still a “big deal” in the legal profession. In fact, it was not until 1993 that women were allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor. Defying logic, in the era of the “power suit,” women in pants was somehow the sartorial problem.
While the trouser-resistance seems to have crumbled significantly since the 1980’s, women in the profession, including women at Richmond Law, report that there is an unwritten rule in certain courts and offices that women should not wear trousers. Though perhaps not the feeling of the majority, the sentiment exists firmly enough that the Career Development Office at the University of Richmond School of Law counsels 1L women to always wear a skirt to legal interviews.
Now I’m no Jacobin, and I whole heartedly endorse formal and traditional etiquette in the legal profession—but there is absolutely no sartorial, historical, or practical reason to oppose trousers for all. Resistance to lawyers in trousers is purely and simply an insult to the dignity of women in the legal profession. Its time to move on.
I. What are pants?
The rise of pants coincided with the rise of ancient equestrian societies. The relatively complex bit of tailoring technology offered a comfortable buffer between the horse and rider. Pants in ancient times were a symbol of a person who rode a horse—a person of status, a warrior, or leader. The horse rider is the cowboy, the knight, the cabillero, the person who is in control, the person who has authority. In contemporary society, the phrase “he/she wears the pants in the family,” seems to acknowledge the power of the pants-wearer beyond just gender. The pants wearer is the bread winner. The person in control. The person who participates outside the domestic sphere, and thus controls domestic life.
Famously, the ancient Greeks were not a pants wearing people. Even so, pants were a powerful symbol in ancient Greece. In the below vase from circa 470 BC, the patriarchal Greeks represent the matriarchal Amazon warrior wearing pants. The pants are a symbol of the woman’s independence, of her status as a warrior and a leader separate from toga-clad and exclusively male Greek society.
As male-dominated equestrian societies began to become more prevalent, the pants-wearer (and thus the warrior/leader) became exclusively male. Although robes were still popular among aristocratic men, the end of the Roman Empire basically saw the end of pants-free societies, and, speaking generally, the norm in Europe became trousers for men and skirts for women.
The birth of the modern suit—and in a sense modern suit sensibility—came in 1666. As a part of the restoration of the English monarchy, parliament sought to bring back the heir to the throne, Charles II. There was some resistance to the idea of installing a monarch—largely due to a fear of monarchial opulence and excess. During his exile, Charles II spent considerable time in France with the uniquely opulent Louis XIV, the “sun king” (the one who built Versailles).
Many of the English feared Charles II would bring French opulence back to England, and so Charles tapped the breaks on over the top courtly clothes. Instead of the lacey, brightly colored silk suits of the French ruling class, Charles II adopted a plainer look. On October 7, 1666, Charles declared that English court dress would consist of an English wool, knee-length coat and a long waistcoat. The emphasis in this new uniform was “on cloth and cut, not ruffles and accessories.”
In this way Charles II brought the ruling class a bit closer to the people. Dressing not as a “sun king” but as “an ordinary bloke.”
Suits and trousers, progressed through the years until the turn of the 19th century, when the stylish Edward VII popularized modern-styled trousers.
Figure 1: 1066, the Normans can be seen wearing trousers in the Bayeux Tapestry. Supra note 6.
Figure 2: This Greek vase from c. 470 BCE depicts an Amazon woman wearing trousers–maybe even a suit. Does her arming coat match her trousers? Supra note 6.
Figure 3: Edward VII displaying the modern trousers he helped to popularize. Supra note 6.
Figure 4: Louis XIV wearing so much silk he actually needs a small table to hold his cloak. Even the globe in the bottom left corner gets a silk cloak… http://www.voltaire.ox.ac.uk/about-voltaire/explore-world-louis-xiv.
Figure 5: 1675 Charles II reeling it in on the silk (and being presented with the first royal pineapple). http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Charles_II_of_England.
II. Women in pants, gasp.
Pants for women began, ironically, with the horse. With the advent of automobiles in the early 20th century, horse riding became more a matter of sport and leisure than of practicality. As with all things impractical and expensive, equestrian sports increasingly became a symbol of wealth and status. Before the 19th century, women in European society rode side saddle, and in skirts. As women became more involved in equestrian sport, they began to ride astride—thus requiring an inseam to separate the rider from the horse.
As cultural norms shifted to allow women more access to physical activity, trousers became a new and important symbol for women who lived more active and not exclusively domestic lives. Just as with men, women’s trousers represented that the wearer was the doer of certain tasks, and that the wearer had an increased independence and control.
One of the first women’s suits came in 1910, when the American Ladies Tailors’ Association created the “suffragette suit,” a blouse, jacket, and ankle length skirt. This served as the precursor to the modern skirt-suit. As women gained ground in the working world, women’s suits became more and more common. Trousers with suits, however, remained for men.
As women gained more power in the political sphere, the skirt-suit, and later the pantsuit, became the uniform. After a rebellion led by several female members of Congress, the Senate finally allowed women to wear pants in 1993. Margaret King, stylist to renowned suit wearer Margaret Thatcher, remarked in 1987 that the prime minister wore suits so much because “she was in a man’s world, and had to look the part.”
In some sense the word “pantsuit” itself highlights the strange state of women’s suits. Strictly speaking, a pantsuit is just a suit. It is the skirt-suit that is the different garment. In the 2008 presidential election, the pantsuit took center stage when Hillary Clinton referred to her followers as “the sisterhood of the travelling pantsuit.” Perhaps the greatest modern champion of the pantsuit, secretary Clinton has lauded the garment as a uniform that makes her feel professional, and a “visual cue that she was different from men but also familiar.”
More than a symbol, though, Secretary Clinton also praised the pantsuit as useful in avoiding the assault of having photographs taken up her skirt as she was on stage or climbing stairs—both of which happened to her while she was first lady.
Figure 6: Two representative examples of the “suffragette suit.”
III. Court dress: what does it mean, why does it matter?
It may be an old-fashioned sentiment, but what lawyers wear to court matters. For many thousands of years, human societies have used clothing to highlight what is important and what is sacred. The uniform of the profession is more than personal expression, it is an elevation of the idea of law and society. Like incense in a church, or a mansion for the president, the clothes that lawyers wear summon the transcendental. They proclaim that what lawyers do, what people do, matters. Suits and trousers in court boldly assert that the work of society today taps into and flows from the lives of humanity through history, and the tradition of civilization.
For at least 100,000 years clothing and jewelry have held significance in human societies. While often diminished as “individual expression” in this, the age of the selfie, adornment and decoration of the body is perhaps the most ancient and pervasive medium for human communication about who we are, what we do, and what we are worth. Indeed, corporal adornment may be older than language.
Refusing women’s right to wear pants in the courtroom is not an inconvenience. It is not a silly rule to be laughed at and ignored. It is a denial of women’s right to participate in the work of society. Wearing trousers in court means something beyond personal expression. It symbolizes a tradition and a history of society and law that women have a right to be a part of. The inseam represents the warrior, the leader, the king, the cowboy, the cabillero. It denotes those who perform the work of creating and sustaining civilization. Pants have never been about gender, but about power.
Hillary Clinton once remarked that the pantsuit was an “anti-distraction technique” and that “[if] there wasn’t much to say or report on what I wore, maybe people would focus on what I was saying instead.”
There is no historical or sartorial reason for women to be scoffed at for wearing trousers in court (and I can’t believe I have to say that). For God’s sake, the Queen wore trousers on a royal tour of Canada nearly fifty years ago. Clearly, access to pants will not change much about circumstances or society. Pants have not and will not lead to any sort of measurable change. But symbols, like art, bear the ineffable. Sometimes feeling leads to being—or in the laconic words of SGM Neel, patriarch of the VMI barracks, “dress like a soldier, feel like a soldier.”
The sort of silly sounding truth is that for a very long time pants have been the uniform of lawyers and leaders. Not because they were men, but because they jumped on the horse and took command. Try jumping on a horse in a skirt. The statement may sound silly, but opposition to such a thing is anything but trivial Absent any compelling reason, there is only one reason left for opposition to inseams—that those opposed to trousers fear women may have something to say, and that others may listen.
Figure 7: https://www.popsugar.com/news/Girl-Pantsuit-Meets-Hillary-Clinton-Book-Signing-44090750.
 Suits, USA Network (Mar. 19, 2018 12:26 PM), http://www.usanetwork.com/suits.
 Ann Farmer, Order in the Closet: Why Attire for Women Lawyers Is Still an Issue, 19 Perspectives 4, 6-7 (Fall 2010), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publishing/perspectives_magazine/2010_fall_order_in_closet.authcheckdam.pdf; Katie J.M. Baker, Forget the Glass Ceiling, We Have Hemlines to Consider, Jezebel (Mar. 16, 2018, 7:12 PM), https://jezebel.com/5916586/forget-the-glass-ceiling-we-have-hemlines-to-consider; Gina Rubel, Women lawyers wearing pants: part II, Avvo (Mar. 16, 2018, 7:18 PM), https://jezebel.com/5916586/forget-the-glass-ceiling-we-have-hemlines-to-consider.
 Megan Garber, Why the Pantsuit? For Hillary Clinton and Many of Her Fellow Women Politicians, a Single Outfit Represents an Uneasy Compromise between Gender and Oower, Atlantic, (Mar. 16, 2018, 6:05 PM), https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/08/youre-fashionable-enough-hillary/493877/.
 Id.; informal interview with Jane Baber, president of Richmond Women’s Law.
 See generally Career Development Office, General Interviewing Tips, Richmond Law (Mar. 16, 2018, 6:11 PM), https://law.richmond.edu/docs/cdo/interview-guide.pdf (advising women to always wear panty hose to an interview).
 A Brief History of Trousers, King and Allen Bespoke Tailoring, (Mar. 16, 2018, 6:15 PM), https://kingandallen.co.uk/a-brief-history-of-trousers/.
 Wear the Pants, The Free Dictionary by Farlex, (Mar. 16, 2018, 6:22 PM), https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/wear+the+pants.
 Supra note 6.
 Supra note 6.
 How Charles II Invented the Three-Piece Suit, Permanent Style (Mar. 16, 2018, 6:27 PM), https://www.permanentstyle.com/2009/04/how-charles-ii-invented-the-three-piece-suit.html.
 Supra note 17.
 Supra note 6.
 Ane Bjølgerud Hansen, Horses, fashion & history, Equilife (Mar. 16, 2018, 6:41 PM), http://www.equilifeworld.com/lifestyle/horses-fashion-history/.
 Hansen, supra note 27.
 Kate Sullivan, The Fascinating History of Women Wearing Suits, allure (Mar. 16, 2018, 6:50 PM), https://www.allure.com/story/women-suits-history.
 Farmer, supra note 2.
 Supra note 6.
 Farmer, supra note 2.
 Hansen, supra note 27.
 Farmer, supra note 2.
 Nancy Hynes, Oldest Known Jewelry Discovered: Beads Made from Shells Represent Earliest Personal Adornment, Nature (Mar. 16, 2018, 7:01 PM), https://www.nature.com/news/2006/060619/full/news060619-10.html.
 Id.; Vyv Evans, How Old is Language? On time Machines, Talking Neanderthals, and the Long(ish) Past of Language, Psychology Today (Mar. 16, 2018, 7:06 PM), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/language-in-the-mind/201502/how-old-is-language.
 Supra note 6.
 Farmer, supra note 2.
 The Queen’s Wardropedia; 2 Inch Heels, 200 Handbags and Why She’s Only Worn Trousers Once, Telegraph (Mar. 16, 2018, 7:34 PM), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/people/shes-only-worn-trousers-publicly-once-and-other-fashion-facts-to/.
Image Source: https://weeklysilence.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/research-paper-pants-phenomenon-the-switch-from-skirts-to-trousers/.